Ostara

Ostara celebrates the vernal equinox when day and night stand at equal length (twelve hours each) but the light is gaining and the days are getting longer. We can really feel spring in the air, and notice the ever increasing warmth and the burgeoning of life. We experience a resurgence of vigour and hope as the energies of the natural world shift from the lethargy of winter to the lively expansion of spring. The flowering of the gorse, daffodils, primrose and coltsfoot – sun coloured spring flowers – celebrate and reflect the increasing strength of the sun. Animals and birds are nest building and mating.  At Ostara, the gods and goddesses of fertility return to the land, and we see new growth everywhere.

Two thousand years ago, across the world, there were a variety of Pagan religions with markedly similar themes of a god who dies and is reborn at this time. He represents the vegetative cycles of the year: the grain grows and is cut down only to be reborn again; the trees lose their leaves and seem to die only to bud once more. In Phrygia, for example, the spring equinox marked the resurrection of Attis, a vegetation god and lover of the goddess Cybele. In ancient Rome, the ten day festival in honour of Attis began on March 15. A pine tree, which represented Attis, was chopped down, wrapped in a linen shroud, decorated with violets and placed in a sepulchre in the temple. On the Day of Blood or Black Friday, the priests of the cult gashed themselves with knives as they danced ecstatically, sympathizing with Cybele in her grief and helping to restore Attis to life. Two days later, a priest opened the sepulchre at dawn, revealing that it was empty and announcing that the god was saved. This day was known as Hilaria or the Day of Joy, a time of feasting and merriment. This is a theme also explored in the Christian feast of Easter.

According to the 7th to 8th-century English monk Bede, the Christian holiday of Easter was named after a Saxon goddess of spring, Eostre. [1] He wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (Old English – ‘Month of Ēostre’) was an English month, corresponding to April when feasts of Eostre were celebrated by Pagans. Building on this, Jacob Grimm, in his Deutsche Mythologie, described Eostre as the divinity of dawn, “of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted into the resurrection-day of the Christian God”. [2] Despite this – or perhaps because of it – there have been many scholarly efforts to discredit Bede’s claims of the existence such a goddess, disputing Grimm’s linguistic connections of Ostara, east and dawn. [3] One suggestion is that the name of the month simply arises as a loan-translation of the Latin term albae, meaning both ‘white’ and ‘dawn’, since white robes were worn by churchmen at Easter. [4] There is certainly no evidence that Eostre was a pan-Germanic goddess of spring, as many modern Pagans often claim, but before we dismiss her existence completely, there is convincing etymological evidence (in the form of historical place and personal names) to suggest that she may have been a purely local goddess, worshipped in Kent. [5] If this is the case, Bede may simply have used the local name for the month, indeed named after a local goddess [6] – Anglo Saxon Christians were certainly happy to make use of Pagan names for days of the week. [7] Bede’s book became one of the essential textbooks of the early Middle Ages, widely circulated in Europe, and it would be nice to think that in this manner he was perpetuating the feast of a local goddess.

[1] Bede, De Tempore Ratione, The Reckoning of Time, trans. Faith Wallis,  Liverpool University Press, 1999

[2] Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, trans. James Stallybrass, Dover, New York, 1882

[3] Sermon, Richard (November 2008). “From Easter to Ostara: the Reinvention of a Pagan Goddess?”, Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture 1

[4] Johann Knobloch, ‘Der Ursprung von nhd. Ostern, engl. Easter’, Die Sprache, 5: 27-45

[5] Philip A. Shaw, Pagan Goddesses in the Earl Germanic World, Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of the Matrons, Bristol Classical Press, Bloomsbury Academic, London, 2011

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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